Rosh Hashanah, motherhood and a better world - opinion

May we all have a wonderful year, a year in which we fulfill our mission to create a better world replete with love and giving.

 A MAN blows a shofar at a synagogue during the month of Elul, ahead of Rosh Hashanah.  (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
A MAN blows a shofar at a synagogue during the month of Elul, ahead of Rosh Hashanah.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

One of the most exciting moments in the Rosh Hashanah prayer is the haftarah reading on the first day, which tells the story of Elkanah’s wife, Hannah, Samuel’s mother (I Samuel 1). It is also a chapter that I relate to personally because I, too, experienced similar challenges and God’s redemption through the birth of my children. 

It is precisely because for many years I prayed to the Creator to give me a child, that I understand Hannah’s story. Yet, one of the troubling questions for many biblical commentators is how a woman can pray for a son and at the same time make a vow to give him to God. I think that a feminist reading of this text will yield a new understanding that explains the meaning of the events and the ostensible paradox that lies in the special figure of Hannah.

For me, the climax of this story is the coat that Hannah sews for her son after she weans him, and before he goes to worship God in the tabernacle. The Bible states: “Moreover, his mother made him a little coat” (I Samuel 2:19). What Hannah sewed for her son is both a kingdom and leadership. By means of the coat, she “marks” him for royalty. According to the commentators, this coat was a status symbol and it accompanied Samuel until his death and after it, as well. 

Through her vow, Hannah a priori perceives pregnancy and childbirth as a national mission. Pregnancy is impersonal and therefore cannot be understood through the ordinary “possessive” categories of motherhood. I recently completed several studies with two MA students and another researcher about observant and nonobservant Jewish women who give birth to many children. We found that women have children first and foremost as an act of self-fulfillment rather than for the sake of society or any other exalted goal. 

However, in Hannah’s case, contrary to the normal concept of motherhood, pregnancy is not intended to satisfy a woman’s natural needs. Hannah, who was a prophetess, perceived Samuel, the son who was lent to her (the meaning of the name Samuel in Hebrew is “loan”) as a conduit for the realization of more exalted social and spiritual values for the common good of the people of Israel, which was divided into tribes.

 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)

The coat is the profound manifestation of her prophecy of achieving self-fulfillment through her son’s leadership and through the vision and path that she is building for him in the public leadership of the people of Israel, which is gradually taking shape and becoming a reality. 

Only a woman with a female sixth sense can do such a thing. Throughout the story, Hannah shapes and builds the plot by exercising a sense of control and being proactive. The coat is the epitome of both her and his liberation.

I have seen modern commentaries claiming that Hannah wanted to bind Samuel to her using the coat and that she regretted her decision to dedicate him to the service of God. This is distorted and it dwarfs Hannah, her rich spiritual world, and her sense of control. 

What happened in this particular canonical biblical text is the exact opposite. As soon as Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son, she was liberated and celebrated this by making the coat and writing a prayer of thanksgiving. In effect, when Hannah gave birth, she also gave birth to a new Hannah and to a kingdom.

She takes Samuel on loan in order to breastfeed him, but she also weans him, thereby liberating both him and herself. Giving the child to do the work of God is a form of emancipation and liberation from a state of absolute helplessness to a state of liberation and absolute control over the situation. 

Hannah's decision to give her son to God

THIS IS THE construction of leadership out of freedom of choice. It was her vow to give him over to serve God. Nobody forced her. Samuel is the firstborn fruit of Hannah’s loins. Just as the first fruits are brought to the Temple, he is “bound with elastic” and given with great love for his mission of serving God in the Temple. By means of the coat, she sews his confidence and creates warmth and a safe place for him inside it. 

When she gave birth to her son by virtue of her vow, she experienced a transformative process of liberation. She liberated herself from the natural maternal possessiveness and sense of ownership that every mother has over her son. She also underwent a healthy psychological process of separation to enable her son to achieve the individuality that would enable him to be ready for his mission. 

Feminist psychologist Nancy Chodorow claimed that while women build their identity through connection, men build their identity through separation, which they need to structure their masculinity and healthy relationships. Separation between mother and son is necessary for the construction of their relationship. 

It is well known that many mothers find it hard to allow their sons to separate from them. The result is unhappy sons who have difficulty bonding with their wives and building healthy intimacy. These sons often fail in their careers as well. 

Hannah fears that after she gives birth, she will bind Samuel to her. She understands that she must liberate him in preparation for his greater mission of bringing the kingdom to the people of Israel. The coat that she sewed is the epitome and the highest and noblest expression of this liberation. While sewing it, she also frees herself from maternal possessiveness. She sewed a kingdom for her son, since it is Samuel who will enthrone King David and build a kingdom in Israel.

On Rosh Hashanah, we must liberate ourselves to connect to the work of God and the work of prayer. We must build a kingdom for ourselves. We must be kings and queens so that we can enthrone ourselves and become part of the great kingdom. 

This is a long and complex transformative process. It is a special synergy that forms between man who was created in God’s image, and God as King of Kings. Reading the haftarah about the story of Hannah, who sewed a kingdom, helps us understand the concept of mission and kingdom, which is the main mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah in its deep spiritual meaning.

On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is sounded in three different ways: malchuyot (kingdoms), zichronot (memories), and shofarot. Kingdoms are not received, they are structured. By means of the coat, Hannah structured Samuel’s process of preparation and maturation for receiving the kingdom.  

May we all have a wonderful year, a year in which we fulfill our mission to create a better world replete with love and giving. With the blowing of malkuyot on the shofar, may we succeed in building a better world with a common cosmic good of baseless love, justice and peace.

The writer is dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Education and directs the university’s Sal Van Gelder Center for Holocaust Education.